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“The art and science of asking questions is the source of all knowledge.”
–Thomas Berger (1924-2014) American novelist
What brings you here? Can you recommend a good movie? What’s your favorite song? How do you prepare for a new semester? How do you relax? Do you have a favorite English word? What are you looking for?
Sometimes a simple, flexible question can create compelling conversations. Therefore, it remains essential that English teachers provide their students with the skills and common phrases necessary to start conversations more comfortably in English. Sharing simple ice-breakers, or conversation starters, is one effective technique to achieve this goal.
Choosing the Right Questions
Some conversation starters clearly work better than others. “What brings you here?” remains one of my personal favorites; it encourages the listener to take control. They can give a short answer such as “I’m looking for information/a quality position/new friends”. They can also give a longer, more personal response. Meanwhile, hiring managers sometimes use this familiar question in job interviews to see how confidently applicants assert their career ambitions.
I also recommend this list of ‘Great Questions’ from StoryCorps.org. Divided into sections based on intended audience and topics, these thought-provoking questions make useful prompts for both in-class speaking activities and real-world practice. Shy native English speakers can also benefit from practicing these conversation starters.
Breaking the Ice
Yet the question remains: how can we integrate more icebreakers into our lesson plans?
For example, years ago I started by adding simple questions to the attendance sheets. What’s your favorite book? What are four adjectives to describe your hometown? What are you grateful for? How will you revise your last paper to make it better? Students appreciate the opportunity to express their ideas and perceptions while learning more about their classmates.
Thus, having English students research their own icebreakers adds to their conversation tool kit – and creates some reflective moments. The following Search and Share worksheet on finding ice-breakers through YouTube offers a simple blueprint for students to explore how to create better conversations with strangers. As usual, use or lose!
Search and Share – Getting to Know Each Other: Ice Breakers
Search for a video on YouTube (in English) about icebreaker (or ice breaker) activities and/or questions to start conversations. Then, answer the following questions.
Publication: Publication date:
1. Describe the video you chose. In what context are these people being introduced?
2. Name one icebreaker that was featured in the video you chose.
3. Have you used this icebreaker before? When? Was it useful?
4. What opinions are expressed in the video?
5. What did you learn from watching this video?
6. What was the most interesting part for you? Why?
7. Write five new vocabulary words, idioms, or expressions related to the topic.
8. Why did you choose this video?
9. How would you rate the article on a scale of 1–5, with 5 being the highest? Why?
10. What is your favorite question to start conversations with? Why?
This activity can help English language learners to practice conversation skills outside the classroom. It’s also worth reminding adult students that conversation starters don’t have to be clever, witty, or complicated. Sometimes just ‘breaking the ice’ works.
Which conversation starters do you share with your English classes? Do you have any helpful advice for ‘breaking the ice?’ with students and strangers?